Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Life, for Rent

There is this Marathi soap that the MIL watches called Anubandh. I have occasionally caught snippets of the story and it seems to be tackling a fairly controversial and topical issue – that of surrogacy.

A very-very middle class single girl finds herself in some dire financial straits (don’t have the background on the hows and whys) and agrees to become a surrogate mother for a very rich couple who cannot have a child (for a whooping fee of course). She seems to be doing this unknown to her very conservative brother and his rather shrewish wife and her fiancĂ© who is away studying in the US. Right now, the girl has just got pregnant – and I assume the plot will try and address the various conflicts which arise from this decision of hers.

And I started thinking about this surrogacy thing. It’s an interesting dilemma – on the one hand, you have the anguish of a woman who is desperate to have a child by any means and cannot do so, (Lets not even get into the societal aspect of barrenness and infertility in India) .On the other hand, you have another woman who is forced to lease out and almost give up her rights (for those nine months) on the absolutely most personal possession she has – her body.

Let me take the surrogate mothers bit in this post.

My first and gut reaction is that it is absolute, unforgivable violation. I would put almost on par with rape and/or prostitution. I know logically, rationally, mentally the two are nowhere similar – rape on the face of it is forced physical intimidation – which is violent and without the consent of the victim. Surrogacy is a consensual contract – the surrogate knows exactly what is it that she is getting into charges a compensation for that – there is no coercion, there is no physical violation and it is certainly done with her buy in.

But doesn’t the fact remain that in both cases, there is a superior strength (physical in some cases, financial in the other) which dictates the balance of power? In both cases, while the act and deed might be completely physical - the ramifications are as much emotional and mental and far outlive the duration of the act. (I am no expert, but I find it difficult to believe that any female can carry a child in the womb for nine months, go through labour and then part with the child without emotional cataclysm).

And let’s look at some of the other aspects- the physicality of it for one. In the normal course of things, a woman is pregnant with her own child – a part of herself, who is for those months sharing residence with her in her body – so yes, she needs to compromise and sacrifice and maybe do a number of things or cease to do a number of things because she is sharing premises – to give a loose analogy, similar to what she would be doing with a spouse or a family member. But would the same feelings, compromises, sacrifices be possible (with the same level of emotion) with say a paying guest (and an unknown one at that), who is sharing the room? Wont the value equations, (This much money, this is what I will do), or even worse, resentment start coming into the picture at SOME point of time?

One could argue that it is the woman’s body and she is free to do as she please with it – but by that logic what is stopping someone else from selling a kidney because of financial imperatives – it’s his or her body after all. You can carry the argument further and say that a kidney donation is life threatening and will seriously debilitate the donor – but isn’t the same true for multiple pregnancies as well? (Hell, my grandmother had 12 pregnancies and 13 kids from them and that left her physically exceedingly frail). There are always risks, of dying in childbirth, or physiological complications and infections. (And I think it is fair to assume that if someone is financially compelled to rent out the womb, chances are she might not have access to five star medical care and comfort during the tenure)

And there are so many other ethical and moral questions which this throws up.

What if the child is less than perfect(God forbid). Do the parents have a right to walk away asking for a refund? Whose responsibility IS it – the fault of the genes or is it some problem in the time the foetus was in the womb?

What if the parents who have initiated it (the non-surrogates) for whatever reason decide to part ways – can they lose the accountability for the kid just because they don’t have the physical experience of having the kid (I vaguely remember reading a case like this sometime back)

What is to stop family members from using women as breeding machines to get that money?

What is to stop potential leasers of wombs from evaluating the prospects for suitability for surrogacy – (much as one would evaluate cattle or slaves in olden times). Isn’t that the ultimate degradation and commoditization of the women?

Frankly I don’t buy the altruism argument. I do not think that the females who become surrogates for financial compensation do so because they want to allow someone to have the joy of parenthood. The reason they do it is because they have mouths to feed or kids to educate or some other pressing financial needs – and leasing their body out is the only way for them to do so ( doesn’t it sound again uncannily like prostitution? Only for a cause which is less sordid)

As I was writing this post, I came across an article in Marie Claire – about how Anand in gujurat has become a surrogacy shop – foreign and non-resident tourists come here to outsource the pregnancy. The doctor who was running the show gave one glib line about how this money gave the woman the “first taste of empowerment”. Those nine months could have been utilized in giving her some training, some skills which would be genuine empowerment and would last beyond those $5000 that she gets for renting her womb out isn’t it?

Having said that I have all the sympathy in the world for those people who unfortunately cannot bear children of their own. I can even understand the motivation behind wanting the child to carry their genes as opposed to adopting an unknown orphan. But somehow I wish there was a way to do it without exploitation of poor, uneducated women.

What do you think?